Meet Weird Paul
by Robin E. Cook
The Paul McCartney of the 1970's just wanted to bang out music and live it up. He'd spent most of his twenties reinventing twentieth-century music, so who could blame him? It was the decade of Romantic Paul, Quirky Paul, Goofy Paul, and Schmaltzy Paul. Occasionally, Snarky Paul turned up too. ("Silly Love Songs" is Paul thumbing his nose at everyone who thought he was sappy.)
It was not, however, the decade of Solo Paul. He released only one album solely under his own name: McCartney. Ram was credited to Paul and Linda, and from there, he assembled Wings. McCartney is known for "Maybe I'm Amazed," Paul playing all the instruments, and not much else. It's a collection of home recordings by a soon-to-be ex-Beatle who was tired of the drama and just wanted to be with his adorable new family.
A decade later, McCartney had come full circle. Wings were winding down, and Paul spent late 1979 recording his second proper solo album, McCartney II. Like McCartney, it was a DIY project (okay, Linda sang backup and took the album photos). The songs are more distinctive partly because of the synthesizers. Lots of synthesizers. This was an artist having fun with his toys. McCartney II is the work of the man who wrote "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" and "She Came in Through the Bathroom Window." It is the sound of Weird Paul.
"Coming Up" is chirpy dance-pop and the album's only hit. Oddly, the album version wasn't the one that reached the top 10; instead, the label released a live version as a bonus single, and that version became the hit. "Coming Up" is also one of the more conventional songs, even if the synths sound like kazoos. McCartney had done disco on "Goodnight Tonight," and "Coming Up" could have been a high-energy post-disco dance hit if it had a different beat. The song's video is fitting for this one-man band as Paul lip-syncs and performs as the Plastic Macs, with Linda as his backing vocalists. He even spoofs his 1964 self, Hofner bass and all.
And then the oddness really begins. To a listener circa 1980, the experience might have been similar to when a certain ex-bandmate of Paul's was making sound art with the avant-garde lady. "Temporary Secretary" is a synth-pop help-wanted ad: "Mister Marks can you find for me/Someone strong and sweet fitting on my knee." Paul's electronicized vocals on the chorus make him sound like Bugs Bunny, and you wonder what Mel Blanc might have made of this song. "Temporary Secretary" has also inspired several memes, which a curious reader can find via a Google Image search.
"On the Way" is ...there. It is the third song on the album. That's all there is to say about it. Once again, Paul's voice is processed electronically, and he sounds like himself. He's going for an atmospheric blues-rock sound, but the song simply plods.
"Waterfalls" predates the TLC hit of the same name by 15 years, with a similar warning about avoiding said waterfalls and staying with nice, safe lakes. Romantic anxiety is the sentiment here, and McCartney indulges in some goofy metaphors: "Don't go chasing polar bears/In the great unknown/Some big friendly polar bear/Might want to take you home." Wait. A polar bear? That sounds cute!
(Speaking of the TLC hit, McCartney mentioned it in a 2007 interview with The AV Club: "In fact, somebody had a hit, a few years ago, using the first line, 'Don't go jumping waterfalls/Please stick to the lake...' And then they go off into another song. It's like, 'Excuse me?'")
On this album, McCartney often sounds like he's marooned somewhere on a musical continuum, with songs that sound dislodged from time and place. "Nobody Knows" is an example: an elastic rocker that could have been a lo-fi track on K Records in the 1990s or a breezy, back-to-basics number by Paul's old band in 1969. On the LP version, it simply closes Side One.
Side Two provides more "Temporary Secretary"-type oddities, starting with the instrumental "Front Parlour," where Paul plays space-age bachelor pad music a decade before Stereolab. The album's second instrumental is the unfortunately titled "Frozen Jap." According to McCartney: "I tried to think of a suitable title and things came to mind, like 'Crystalline Icicles Overhang The Little Cabin By The Ice-Capped Mount Fuji' or 'Snow Scene In The Orient', but all the titles sounded clumsy." Paul, maaaaayyyyybe one of those two titles would have been more suitable. The song itself is rather clever, with a lovely, lilting melody and walloping drums. By the way, it was recorded prior to McCartney's 1980 pot bust in Japan.
Sandwiched between "Front Parlour" and "Frozen Jap" is "Summer's Day Song," a shimmering, New Agey ballad that evokes the haze of the titular day. It's as if McCartney wanted to remind listeners that the old, familiar, comforting Paul was still there under the synth textures. The minimalist lyrics are enough to convey the song's mood.
"Bogey Music" is based on Raymond Briggs' children's book, Fungus the Bogeyman. McCartney wrote in the lyric sheet: "Bogey men hate music and prefer wet, slimy clothes to warm and clean ones. But the younger generation rebel and develop a taste for rock and roll and cleanliness. 'Bogey Music' is the first record made by 'dry cleaners' [human beings] for the expanding Bogey market." Got that? This is an album for rebellious fictional creatures. According to IMDB, Fungus the Bogeyman was actually made into a British TV miniseries, though it doesn't look like "Bogey Music" was used for the show.
Of course, every synth-pop album needs a dark, ominous, faintly scary song, and on McCartney II, "Darkroom" fits the description perfectly. "Let me show you to my darkroom." The song creeps along before a disco beat kicks in ten seconds before the song's end. By now, the listener, who's spent the past half hour wondering what's gotten into Macca, will be comforted by "One of These Days," one of his trademark acoustic ballads, which closes the album. Macca almost sounds like he's back to normal. Almost.
McCartney II is now available as a special Archive Collection release with bonus material, including the live version of "Coming Up" and ... the single "Wonderful Christmastime," which was recorded during the McCartney II sessions but not included on the album. Your humble author here is indifferent to "Wonderful Christmastime," but lots of people love to hate it. So let's skip ahead to the real goodies--tracks too wacky even for an album with songs about office temps, bogeymen, and chasing polar bears.
There's "Check My Machine," a synth-reggae number that opens with cartoon voices and segues into Falsetto Paul repeating the song title over and over. There are synth-pop experiments like "Blue Sway," "Bogey Wobble" and "Secret Friends," where Paul sounds like he's attempting bland '80s balladry, video game soundtracks, and more space-age bachelor pad music, respectively. There's "Mr. H. Atom/ You Know I'll Get You Baby," described by Paul at the start of the song as "Shangri-Las versus the Village People." There's ten-plus minutes of "All You Horse Riders/Blue Sway," which starts as a disco-square dance hybrid before morphing into a more conventional synth-driven instrumental.
In retrospect, it's a shame Weird Paul ran out of things to say after this album. Instead, Schmaltzy Paul reemerged to sing duets with Michael Jackson and offer him advice about buying song copyrights as an investment. Which is how Jackson ended up with the rights to the Beatles' music. Weird Paul could have prevented all that. Perhaps Weird Paul could have also prevented Give My Regards to Broad Street. Or at least have made a more interesting movie. He continues to reemerge at times, however, most notably in the Firemen, an electronic duo consisting of McCartney and Youth.
Weird Paul remains a manifestation of McCartney's loopier instincts and freewheeling sensibility. You say you've had enough of silly love songs? Well, Weird Paul feels the same way. Join him and you can commiserate about polar bears.
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